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Mar 3, 2014

Age of empires: Ukraine high-stakes chess game against Russian grandmaster

Russia and Ukraine are on the brink of war, but few in the West have any concept of Russia's end game. The Russians saw this coming and are strategically placed for any eventuality.


That Russia and Ukraine have come to the brink of war in just a few short days is obvious enough. What is less obvious is not the quickly evolving events that might unfold over the next days and weeks but Russia’s end game.

As with its negotiations over the Syrian civil war last September, Russia is playing an adept game of strategic chess. While Russia has its game planned well in advance, the West is only just coming to terms with the next move.

Underlying Russia’s positioning on Ukraine, and key to its ability to fob off Western protestations, is its longer-term plan to establish a Eurasian Union to rival that of the European Union. As a significant regional economy, Ukraine is critical to the success of Russia’s bid to counter the EU, which is why Russia is insistent it remains within its strategic sphere.

Russia also stations its strategically important Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, which under a deal signed by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych it leases until 2042.

In one sense, Russia’s Eurasian Union is a reinvention of the economic relations within the former Soviet Union. In another sense, however, it is an economic reinvention of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Either way, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to restore Russia to an international greatness corresponding to that prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Russia has already sent 6000 troops without insignia to Crimea in southern Ukraine, ostensibly as “local patriots”. These are to protect its naval base at Sevastopol and in support of ethnic Russians unhappy with the recent ousting of Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian. The Ukrainian government has said such moves could lead to war between the two countries.

A war between Russia and Ukraine would be bloody and vastly destructive; if Ukraine struck quickly it could achieve an initial strategic advantage. Similarly, if Russia invades it will be a long, bloody and costly conflict. Neither country wants to go down the path of direct conflict.

If Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s assertions, expected at least to be for a pro-Russia economic policy as agreed to by Yanukovych, Russia will assist ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s south and east to declare themselves independent from Ukraine. Ukraine could respond militarily to such separatism but would, by definition, then be involved in a war within its borders; Russia would have punished Ukraine without having become directly involved.

The solution to this situation would be a divided Ukraine suing for peace, the conditions of which would be greater autonomy for ethnic Russian regions and the economic obeisance of Ukraine to Russia’s Eurasian Union.

The United States and the EU are deeply concerned at current events and have made angry noises. Ukraine has requested NATO’s intervention. But while the EU would like Ukraine to become economically closer, the EU and the US do not critically need Ukraine, and NATO will, consequently, not go to war over it.

It is highly likely that, should events continue to unfold as they seem, the EU and the US will push for economic sanctions against Russia, but this then starts to play to Russia’s longer game. Russia supplies about a third of all of the EU’s oil and almost 40% of its gas. The balance of trade between Russia and the EU goes approximately 3:2 in Russia’s favour. In short, Russia needs the EU oil and gas market, but the EU needs Russia’s oil and gas even more. Trade may reduce, but Russia will survive.

More to the point, with Russia moving to consolidate its Eurasian Union as a balance to the EU, keeping Ukarine within its orbit and reducing reliance on the EU is part of Putin’s longer game. That this might well result in a new iteration of the Cold War would simply be testament to Putin’s vision of Russia’s return to international greatness.

Turmoil in Ukraine may continue and events, unfolding quickly, are not entirely predictable. But if Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting in a supremely confident manner over this conflict, as has been noted by some observers, it is because Russians play chess very well.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University


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14 thoughts on “Age of empires: Ukraine high-stakes chess game against Russian grandmaster

  1. macadamia man

    “To protect Russian speakers” is about as scary as it can be. will this apparent legitimisation of a brand new “causus belli” apply to Cantonese, Spanish & English speakers too?

  2. Geoff Russell

    The Russian troops on the ground are apparently not being challenged. Can anybody see this happening if they went into Germany or Hawaii? No. And they’d never go into these countries anyway.

    I’d be interested in how many Ukrainian military commanders are ex Soviet commanders? If they choose not to fight, then I’d be reckoning no-one else has any pressing reason (other than high moral ground) to do so.

  3. Grumpy Old Sod

    When the Vikings first populated the area they called ‘Rus’ in the eighth century, they did so by sailing around Gibraltar from their Scandinavian homelands, through the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and up the Dnieper River where they established their capital at what is now Kiev. One could say that the Russians have a long history within that region though this alone does not give them justification for any armed conflict.

    However, as I have pointed out previously, the Ukrainian uprising was achieved mainly by far right groups aided an abetted by the USA and EU and whose main claim to fame is ultra-nationalism, a virulent hatred of Russia and and equally virulent hatred of Judaism. This can be seen by two pieces of law proposed by these groups in the last week; one banning the Russian language, thus marginalising their substantial Russian minority and the other banning Judaism with the expressed desire to remove all Jews from the Ukraine.

    In addition, until the break up of the USSR, the Eastern Ukraine was a part of the USSR and was not recognised as Ukrainian. Given that the USSR as it was suffered enormously from the depredations of the Nazis one could excuse the Russians of being somewhat leery of anyone professing a similar philosophy, especially when that someone (a) lives next door, (b) uses symbols of the Nazis including their salutes (but with their left arm, not their right as did the Nazis) and marches under a very fair facsimile of the SS flag and (c) actively promotes armed rebellion (a ‘blackshirt revolution’ as described by Moscow) against the pro Russian government and their fellow Russian speaking citizens.

    While I am not promoting Putin (heaven forbid, the man’s a dictator!) nor Russia, I am suggesting that their is more to this than we are being told so to hear our beloved leader carry on as he does about this merely reinforces my opinion of him as being a very limp sock puppet. And before we go rushing off on another Conservative led war, we should look very closely at those we could be fighting for.

    I don’t think it will come to that but there is a rising tide of fascism within Europe which many commentators see as being translated to 20% of the EU Parliament at the next elections. I think we here should look closely at this and refuse to be drawn into any further stupidity in Europe like we were to our detriment exactly 100 years ago.

    And in regards to this article by Professor Kingsbury I thank him for educating me further in the complexities of the situation and agree that the Russians will be the eventual winners in this situation and that hopefully we will not be eating the fruits of a thermonuclear war as many fear.

  4. puddleduck

    I’d be interested in a more detailed piece by Damian, putting current events in the context of WW11 and remaining enmity between the right and left-wing in Ukraine. I’ve read some material saying the people who toppled Yanukovych are the fascists of the olden days, raising the spectre of Ukraine’s participation in the massacre of its Jewish population. The debate seemed to be that one has to pick sides. Isn’t it possible that for the average Ukrainian, neither choice is satisfactory?

  5. CML

    @ puddleduck Like you, I have read and heard that the forces arraigned against Yanukovych are composed mostly of neo-nazis and the extreme right. Can’t see the Russian sectors in the Ukraine agreeing to be ruled by these types of people.
    Am also a little puzzled that Russia is getting stick for protecting its’ military assets in the Crimea, where it appears they have an agreement to remain for the best part of 30 years. So far, they have not attempted to ‘take-over’ anything.
    How come the western powers have their knickers in a knot over this, yet nothing is said about Israel taking over whole areas in the West Bank, which clearly don’t belong to them, and they have no right to be in?
    A little consistency from the federal government and our allies wouldn’t go astray!!

  6. mikeb

    So what is the problem with a Eurasian Union & why would the “West” want to get involved? Russia can afford military action about as much as the US can afford another Iraq fiasco. Even Putin is not that stupid. If the Ukrainians roll over then so be it.

  7. TheFamousEccles

    Thank you both Prof. Kingsbury and Grumpy Old Sod, my thoughts have taken a rather dramatic about-face in regards to this face-off between Russia and Ukraine. I am no fan of Putin, but I support neo nazi’s and ultra-nationalists even less.

    This is yet another reason for my continuing Crikey subscription – educated and educational comment and analysis.

  8. Iskandar

    GOS: Agree with you in general but disagree on a couple of points of history. Viking merchant adventurers did indeed found a trading post at Kiev in the 10th century but they came along river routes from the Baltic, a short overland portage to the Dnieper, then down to the Black Sea and the Byzantine empire, thus establishing a link between the Baltic and Black Sea economic zones. Before them the region north of the Black Sea was repeatedly overrun by wandering tribes from various directions; Bulgars, Magyars,
    Scythians, Tatars, Celts amongst others, even including Greek colonies along the coast. So the region has a long history of ethnic diversity leading perhaps to this schizophrenic polity currently referred to as Ukraine.

    Secondly, I have a cousin in Kiev who assures me the troubles began about a year ago with peaceful student demonstrations against the corrupt and grasping administration of Yanukovich and his cronies. A typical post-Soviet oligarch, he and his ilk had not been brought under control as had their counterparts in Russia by the Putin administration. Last November a peaceful student demonstration was dispersed harshly, which inspired them to come back in greater numbers, but this time other malcontents joined the fray, including virulent neo-Fascist ultra-nationalists whose red-and-black flags were seen waving in the crowds. Someone then authorised live ammunition to be fired on the crowds, killing dozens. It’s not clear who but Yanukovich has been blamed, and in the livid rage which followed he high-tailed it out of the country. He seems to have some kind of asylum in Russia, but I doubt the Russians regard him very highly for the mess he created.

    For Russia the reality is that “Independent Ukraine” is a failed state on its southern border, smack-dab on the classical invasion route from western Europe along which the Swedes, the Napoleonic French, the Poles post-WW1, and the Germans in WW2 went on their rampages into Russia. Not to mention the French occupation of the Black Sea littoral in 1919 and British intervention forces who were booted out of Novorossisk on 7 March 1920 along with their White Russian allies, thus ending WW1 on that date, not 11 November 1918 as is popularly believed. You could say the Russians have valid historical reasons for feeling a mite sensitive about the stability of those regions.

    But of course a justifiable show of military muscle in support of that sensitivity is automatically interpreted in knee-jerk fashion as aggression by the usual Anglo-American trolls including that horrible brain-dead Bishop woman, Tony (George Bush) Abbott, and their English and American counterparts. I am sad that Bill Shorten is in lock-step with them; I usually expect more intelligence from the ALP side of politics, but there you go.

  9. AR

    I’m surprised at only 40% of EU gas coming from Russia but, given Dutch & Norwegian reserves, I’d be interested to know what proportion Germany uses. Lest we forget, Raygun in the 80s threatened all sorts of commercial punishment, refusal of licences etc if (divided) german got on the commie teat. But they ignored him and today they are the crucial, as for the last couple of centuries, the crux & crunch point of Europe.

  10. Sailor

    Prof Kingsbury & Crikey commentators: thanks for the thoroughly informative reality upgrade for me.

    I have a lot to thank Crikey’s commentators for, in the development of strong arguments I put to defend (in a debater’s sense) the worldview I have.

    Still learning after 71 years, hope that never ceases. Always keen to learn something new. Then (a science education does this to your thinking) delve further.

  11. mikeb

    Very interesting comments. I had not heard of a Polish-Russian war in the Ukraine until now.

  12. Grumpy Old Sod

    Hi Iskander, thanks for the update. I was going by obviously faulty memory about the genesis of Ukraine.

    What you say about the beginnings of the problems is all too true, Yanukovich was a brutal and corrupt dictator who thoroughly deserves his coming fate. The problem as I see it is that at the end of the Soviet era, Ukraine was ‘bequeathed’ an army of what I believe is in the order of 700,000 troops and nuclear weapons to boot. Given the the fascists have taken over this is a frightening thought. And given the rise of fascism in Europe (Golden Dawn – Greece, the stirrings of the Franco rump in Spain, Le Pen in France and God knows what elsewhere the equation becomes truly fearsome.

    Therefore my sympathies lie with the Russians which puts me at odds with our ‘mature’ leadership. For another take on this issue that opens up one of the currently operating undercurrents of European politics, have a read of this:


  13. Dan B

    There is also the pending US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan to consider when discussing how serious both will be with the threats of sanctions. The US in particular will be relying heavily on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – all former Soviet satellite states, and still politically influenced by Russia to assist in its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Should Obama upset Putin enough, Putin closes the NDN, effectively leaving only the Pakistani route for its withdrawal. A highly undesirable single option for the Administration…

  14. Andreas Bimba

    The Eurasian union is a dead duck. No nation wants to live in Russia’s jail. Russia is playing with Ukraine like a cat playing with a dying mouse, after every attempt to move away the poor mouse is mangled some more and drawn back closer. The Ukrainians have been treated appallingly by Russia throughout their history and the international community has an obligation to protect their independence and re-establish their economy in an effective and just manner.

    The EU is an economic structure unacceptable to Russia as it is seen rightly as a competing empire moving ever closer to its borders. The EU was a disaster for Eastern European members as it facilitated the hollowing out of its industries even when these industries were productive and just required better management. The EU was a disaster because it facilitated the debt bubbles of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy, UK, France and a few others which now keeps large numbers unemployed and in poverty. The EU created a super competitive Germany when the Euro collapsed which draws in Europe’s wealth into that country.

    Europe should not have created the EU but instead should have created a European preferential trade zone similar to the old EEC with each member retaining its currency and political independence. Nations should also have been free to selectively protect industry sectors at their discretion. Europe is not one people or one nation like the United States. Russia could have in time joined such a European preferential trade zone and probably would have not objected to Ukraine, Georgia and the other former USSR nations from joining. Globalisation, total free trade and neo-liberalism has been a disaster for most of Europe as it has for most of the world apart from a few big winners like Germany and China.


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